When he got a freelance assignment to photograph the great saxophone player Lester Young at the Five Spot Cafe in Lower Manhattan in 1958, Herb Snitzer was a kid, intoxicated with life in New York City and just beginning his career as a photographer. He didn't know much about jazz.
Snitzer shot more than 100 photos that night, a spread of which appeared in Metronome magazine's 1959 jazz yearbook and helped launch his career, but that wasn't the only important thing that happened.
"The experience changed my life," he writes in his new book, Glorious Days and Nights: A Jazz Memoir, sending him on "a forty-year odyssey" into the world of jazz and its performers.
Snitzer, who moved to St. Petersburg in 1992 and has a studio at Salt Creek Artworks, has photographed athletes and movie stars, civil rights demonstrations and historic sites. But much of his best-known work comes from his close association with the great figures of jazz in the mid 20th century, and the new book includes both his short memoir of those days and 85 striking black-and-white images.
Many of those photos were shot between 1958, when Snitzer first went to work for Metronome, and the early 1960s, when rock 'n' roll pushed jazz out of the forefront of popular music.
He writes, "This was the Golden Age of Jazz, and I was given the opportunity to hang out with the old masters like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and I was also there to see the young turks coming in like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. One night you could listen to Nina Simone at Town Hall, and the next night you could see John Coltrane. I also got to play ping-pong with Thelonious Monk. . . ."
Snitzer's memoir recalls the joy of live performances, the intimate atmosphere of small clubs, the racial discrimination that affected both the music and the musicians. He serves up a little dish, like the time that, at a Metronome editor's behest, he cold-called President-elect John F. Kennedy's Palm Beach home to suggest inviting Dizzy Gillespie to play at the inaugural ball.
The stories come to life in the photographs, which capture their subjects on stage and off, in moods meditative or ecstatic, clowning around or focusing with total intensity on a musical moment. Monk and Mingus, Pops and Sassy, Duke and Dizzy, Trane and Miles — they're all here.
For any jazz lover who has ever wished to have been around in the Golden Age, Glorious Days and Nights offers a wonderful glimpse of what it must have been like.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.